Story highlights

One study found senior managers are four times more likely to be a psychopath

Office psychopaths mimic rather than feel emotions, often leading to destructive behavior

While associated with violence, psychopathic behavior doesn't necessarily lead to crime

Psychologists believe 1% of people have the mental disorder, which is rooted in genetics

CNN  — 

Think you suffer from a “psycho” boss? A small but growing body of global research suggests you might be right.

Call it the “Psycho-path to Success.”

Psychopaths – narcissists guided without conscience, who mimic rather than feel real emotions – bring to mind serial killers such as Ted Bundy or fictional murderers such as Hannibal Lecter or “Dexter,” the anti-hero of the popular Showtime TV series. But psychologists say most psychopaths are not behind bars – and at least one study shows people with psychopathic tendencies are four times more likely to be found in senior management.

“Not all psychopaths are in prison – some are in the boardroom,” said Dr. Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist who is co-author of the book “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work.”

And British researcher Clive Boddy goes further: He thinks the 2007-2008 financial crisis may have resulted in the growing proliferation of psychopathic personalities in the corner office – an offshoot of the erosion of single company employment in the last generation.

“If you worked at a company over the course of 20 or 30 years, people got to know what you’re like, how they treat people, regardless of how you appeared in an interview,” said Boddy, whose “Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis” was recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics. “Obviously these days, as people move job to job every two or three years, that’s not possible any more.”

His paper follows a 2010 study Hare co-authored that found about 4% of senior managers displayed psychopathic tendencies, up from the 1% that researchers say could normally be found in society.

“People tend to think of psychopaths as criminals. In fact, the majority of psychopaths aren’t criminal,” said Hare, a pioneer in the study of psychopathy who developed the first diagnostic test for the mental disorder in 1980. “They don’t go out and maim, rob and rape but find other ways to satisfy themselves without doing something necessarily illegal … such as taking risks with someone else’s property or money.”

Which raises a disturbing question: Why are psychopaths four times more likely to be found in senior management?

The Successful Psychopath

The “corporate psychopath” brings to mind the character of Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street banker who would kill a colleague over a business card in the movie, “American Psycho,” based on the controversial book by Brett Easton Ellis. In the real working world, however, executives who display psychopathic tendencies are often charismatic charmers on first meeting, emoting confidence that is rooted in deception, psychologists say.

They lie without remorse, steal credit for accomplishments and are adroit at transferring blame for their mistakes, psychologists said. Psychopaths are more likely to have shallow, short-term sexual relationships – often in the workplace – and are easily bored. They are prone to take risks without concern for the ramifications.

“Most of us have an image of psychopathy that’s inaccurate – we think of the killer, a crazy person … the fact is, psychopathy is a personality disorder that may or may not result in criminal behavior,” said Paul Babiak, a New York industrial psychologist who has teamed with Hare on “Snakes and Suits” and a range of studies on psychopaths in the workplace over the past 16 years.

Psychopaths are drawn to powerful people and positions. “They like to play head games with people and make good money at it,” said Babiak, who coaches executives on dealing with psychopathic colleagues – and most of his clients are in the financial services industry. “They’re not stupid. They can decode what’s expected of them and play the part.”

Office psychopaths are charismatic, which often masks proclivities to steal ideas, playing mind games and shift blame.

One advantage psychopaths have is they are not swimming in the sea of emotions that color and guide most of our decision-making. “Psychopaths are great bullies,” said Boddy, author of the book, “Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers.”

“They are cunning and manipulative, and great at engineering situations. Although they don’t have emotions themselves, they can create emotional situations,” Boddy said. “The rest of us don’t even realize we’re being manipulated until it’s too late.”

Hardwired for trouble

Babiak and Hare’s work exploring psychopaths in the workplace gained traction in the wake of the implosion of Enron and Worldcom at the turn of the century and is now getting renewed interest after the financial crisis and high-profile fraud cases such as Bernie Madoff”s Ponzi Scheme and the insider trading conviction of fund manager Raj Rajaratnam – though there have been no proven claims about the mental states of these people.

But much of the study of psychopathy comes from prisons, not the workplace, and “for good reason,” Babiak said. “(A prisoner’s past) behavior is documented, you are able to test whether they are telling the truth or not from records, you can observe them in social settings.”

And therein lies the problem with studying the malady and its impact on the workplace. “We are having a heck of a time doing this kind of research because companies don’t want to know,” said Hare, who has advised the FBI on psychopaths and helped actress Nicole Kidman prepare for her role in the 1993 thriller “Malice.”

The problem also lies with the diagnosis: Squint at the symptoms of psychopathy, and in a different light they can appear as simple office politics or entrepreneurial prowess. Psychopaths “believe the rules don’t apply to them,” Babiak said.

Psychopaths are gifted at finding the weakness and insecurities of colleagues, yet that can be dressed as “constructive criticism.” Psychopaths always turn on the charm to those in power within their corporation – and equally turn on the malice to colleagues or subordinates – but isn’t that just “managing up”? “They can’t get any one thing done because they’re prone to boredom, but that can be easily called ‘multitasking,’” Babiak said.

“Just because you have a high temperature and you cough doesn’t mean you have pneumonia,” added Hare. “Similarly, risk-taking can be beneficial. A lack of empathy can be beneficial, if you need to make a rational-based decision.”

The damage done

The difference, the researchers say, is most high-fliers display different personas at work versus home. Psychopaths don’t vary their behavior: They are hardwired for pathological impulses. “They act this way toward their mother or their daughter,” Hare said, damaging family members as deftly as work colleagues.

While environmental factors play a part, psychopathy is rooted in biology. Brain scans of psychopaths show areas of the brain that govern emotion in psychopaths aren’t as active as a normal adult’s. Show them words freighted with emotional meaning – such as a “rape,” “blood” or “knife” – and their brain activity shows the same reaction if shown “tree” or “rock.”

“What we refer to as ‘conscience’ is not a purely intellectual mechanism but has a strong emotional component. The latter is largely responsible for the difference between knowing the rules of the game and being guided by this knowledge,” Hare said. Psychopaths, uninhibited by emotion, are “sort of like a car with great power but weak brakes.”

With turmoil in the markets and rapid changes across the corporate landscape, these are golden times for cold, career opportunists like psychopaths, psychologists say. But the damage done – bad morale, poor teamwork, ineffective execution of strategy – can be difficult to quantify on corporate bottomlines, unless the psychopath veers into actual crime.

And crime in the workplace is rising. A November report from PriceWaterhouse Coopers shows global economic crime is rising – a 13% increase since its 2009 world survey, with an average cost per company of $5 million. And most of the crimes are inside jobs: 56% of companies say the offenders were employees.

“You may have people who defraud your business ranging from taking change out of the register to stealing tens of thousands,” Babiak said. “The psychopath sees no difference and feels no remorse.”